My Mom Stole My Identity and Ruined My Credit

My mom has had problems with money for as long as I’ve been alive. Growing up, it was common to see my mother go on shopping sprees, and then hide the bags in her closet before my dad got home.

The closest we ever came to discussing the event that began my descent into mountains of credit card debt was her quietly saying over the phone, “I’m sorry I ruined your credit score.”

I was a 26-year-old college graduate about to start making $27,000 a year at my first job in New York, and found myself in need of $2,000 to sign a lease on a new apartment. Unable to get financial help from my parents, I applied for a line of credit from my bank. When I received a letter of denial stating that I had a poor credit rating, I was confused. I only had one credit card that I’d opened when I was 18. I used it infrequently, and always paid on time. Visa had rewarded my good financial habits by raising my credit limit to nearly $9,000. How could my credit score have gotten so bad?

I pulled up my credit report and was shocked to see my credit score below 400 (most credits scores are between 600 and 750). I pored over the report and saw all the things I expected to see—and then something unexpected: an American Express card that had been maxed out beyond its $20,000 limit due to extensive late fees.

I did the first thing any confused and broke 20-something does. I called my mom. When I mentioned the AmEx card, she said, “Oh, don’t you remember when I got you a card from my account?”

“Nope,” I said. I’ve never had an American Express card in my life.

“Well,” she said, “that card shouldn’t be on your report anyway, because it was paid off and closed a long time ago.”

I should mention here that my mom and I have almost the exact same name, with just a few different letters in our first and middle names.

We tend not to talk about much in my family. If there are problems, we ignore them until they go away. I didn’t ask my mom outright if she’d opened the card in my name. I just assumed. Her subtle admission of guilt came after I called in tears because I had to take a $2,000 cash advance on my credit card at a 22 percent interest rate. I cried because I knew it would take me years to pay off that debt.

The single statement from her that she was even aware of an AmEx card was enough to confirm my suspicions. There was no other explanation for a $20,000 AmEx bill in my name besides my mom opening it. My parents had hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and I’m fairly certain most of it came from my mom. It wasn’t a stretch to believe that besides cards in her and my dad’s names, she’d have one in mine too.

Starting out my new, independent life already in the hole credit-wise was pretty awful. Shaken by it, I let that terrible credit score give me free rein on the remainder of my $9,000 Visa limit. I figured my credit score was already in the crapper, so I might as well enjoy the credit I did have left. What was the point of being responsible now?

Living in Manhattan on less than $30,000 a year required that I sometimes buy a MetroCard, or pay for groceries with a credit card, but more often than not, I indulged in retail therapy: a new camera here, an Anthropologie splurge there, and more luxury yarn than I could possibly knit. (I’m really not as twee as that sentence makes me sound, I promise.) I also cashed out a life insurance policy that my dad had opened for me when I was a kid. The spiraling continued, but I managed to pay the monthly minimums until I got laid off from my full-time job. The delinquencies and late fees began stacking up, and my credit score continued to plummet. I didn’t care—credit card debt had become my way of life. I had given up. I threw out the bills and ignored the onslaught of phone calls from my creditors.

After getting laid off, and unsuccessfully looking for a job with no more credit to rely on to finance living my life in New York, I left the city. I hitched a ride with a friend who was driving out west where I had some family and friends to stay with while I got back on my feet. I found a full-time job, and was making enough money to have a few bucks left after paying my bills for the first time in my life. It was time I got my financial life back. I thought I’d give grown-up stuff, like paying off debt, a try again.

I haggled with my credit card company, and tried to convince them to erase all the late fees that had accumulated after I had given up paying off my debt. We compromised with a payment plan at a reasonable 1 percent interest rate—late fees still intact. It was much better than the 22 percent rate I was paying before. I signed up for automatic debit payments, so I couldn’t rationalize not paying the bill, and managed to budget around the amount coming out of my account every month.

I still sometimes found myself making $2.13 last for seven days until my next paycheck, but at least I was paying off my bill. I was proud to see that auto-debit come out of my account every month. Learning the hard lessons of my irresponsibility helped me understand that I never wanted to have to experience all this again. I’d try to imagine what I could have spent that money on every month, and how I had very little to really show for all that debt. That was the real kicker: not being able to go home to visit my family, or do fun stuff with friends because I had to pay my credit card bill.

Now, almost four years have passed since that fateful and inauspicious beginning to “real life,” and I’ll be debt-free in approximately 18 months. It was a long, hard lesson to learn, and required ignoring pretty much everything I thought I knew about money.

My mom and I still have never spoken of that AmEx card, other than that one sentence I knew was painful for her to utter. If I asked her about it today, I have no idea if she’d deny it, or come clean. We still have a great relationship, and I stopped being angry about this incident a couple years ago, because I know she hadn’t done it maliciously. I know her history of spending, and I know she has a problem. My dad has stopped allowing her access to their main bank accounts because of it. I also know that she never considered that it would cause a problem for me, since the account was eventually paid off. I think it surprised her to see it show up on my credit report.

This isn’t one of those happy endings where everything is tied up in one neat little package. I’m still dealing with controlling my irresponsible spending, and living paycheck to paycheck. But, if I ever get frustrated, I just think about what my mom has done in pursuit of material comforts, and I find myself motivated to be better than that and to make better choices.

At the very least, I know she probably won’t ever open a credit card in my name again. It wouldn’t be worth it now. My credit score still isn’t that great.

 

Lianne left New York for the Rocky Mountains, but still misses Central Park. After growing up writing Babysitters Club and American Girl fanfic, she now works as a copywriter. Photo: thisreidwrites

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23 Comments / Post A Comment

NoReally (#45)

I guess I wasn’t expecting “My having pressed charges against my mother for identity theft, and her subsequent fraud conviction will make Thanksgiving tense this year.” But, “We still have a great relationship”?

MissMushkila (#1,044)

@NoReally Yeah. There have been many stories on here where people are far more tolerant of their parents essentially robbing them than I would be. I get people have parents who are financially irresponsible – but they are still adults. I’m not saying you should hate them, but I think it’s fair and non-enabling to hold them accountable for huting others. Just like if I stole my parents’ identity I wouldn’t be shocked if they made me pay the consequences for my own actions!

wearitcounts (#772)

@NoReally i actually kind of DID expect there to be some level of name-clearing pursuit.

@NoReally Yeah I was really surprised the writer took this all in stride and paid it off. I’ve never been in a position where I’ve potentially had to press charges against/otherwise ruin a family member’s life but when they obviously have no qualms about doing that to you….

@NoReally I imagine it’s like having an addict relative. If they manage to get themselves under control, a lot of the previous behaviour can be forgiven as “just the disease and not the person”. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad one, but I’ve definitely seen it happen in my family.

bgprincipessa (#699)

@polka dots vs stripes The author didn’t pay off the crazy debt amassed by her mom though – her mom says that was paid off, and she mentions it again toward the end. The credit score was still hurt though.

@bgprincipessa Oh poor reading comprehension on my part. I thought her credit card debt was her NYC debt + her mom’s bills.

I also thought that the mom was maybe white-lying (okay, lying-lying) about having paid the card off and closing it which obviously colored the way I read it.

AlliNYC (#1,725)

@NoReally Yes that is how I read it too, I thought there was still a balance from her mom.

bgprincipessa (#699)

“I should mention here that my mom and I have almost the exact same name, with just a few different letters in our first and middle names.”

My mom’s name is Diane, and she wanted to name me Lianne, like the author’s name, but thought it was too similar. So she made up her own spelling of the same name for me.

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

Sadly, most identify thefts occurs between family members. At minimum, a person can dispute the finding on their credit report because they didn’t actually open the account. Their signature was forged! Why anyone would accept this and chalk it up to…”well mom just can’t control her spending”….is beyond me.

honey cowl (#1,510)

@SterlingCooper05 Respectfully, you don’t know what goes on in other people’s families. I doubt I could ever cut my mom off, even if she did something like this to me, since she is such an important person to me. I am also rather passive and I don’t exactly enjoy confrontation. Fortunately my parents are far better with money than I will ever be.

SterlingCooper05 (#2,529)

@Lauren Who said anything about cutting the mom off? I suggested she at least dispute the credit report error for her own good. It would not have harmed the mother in any way. Instead, she dealt with the poor credit while ignoring it. I just know what she wrote in her article and think it was handled very poorly.

@SterlingCooper05 But the author acknowledges that her response was poor – that she was young, ill-informed about money, and had a lot of emotional baggage attached to the incident. Sounds like she’d handle it very differently now, and that’s the educational curve she’s talking about in this essay.

msworst (#2,640)

Ugh. I have a friend who had his father do this to him. They do have the same name – friend is a Jr. He disputed the accounts that weren’t his and I think was able to get some removed but there were a few who said that he had to press charges against his father or they wouldn’t remove them. I guess because they could be in cahoots or something? Who knows if that was even true but my friend couldn’t bring himself to press charges so he just had ruined credit for a long time. The father had a lot of drug and alcohol issues as well. Unlike this, most of the debts weren’t paid off at all. Sucks.

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

My mom did this to me when I was in college – over $5000 of unpaid credit card debt that was in serious collections. My sister was still living with my mom (totally supported by her), so I chose not to press charges and just paid off all the debt myself. Eventually the late payment dings on my credit dropped off. I had a shitty credit score for several years, but at this point it’s back in the mid-700s.

Unlike the author, my mom and I do not have a good relationship anymore. We did prior to this incident but I just can’t fathom how you can screw over your own kid like that.

Maladydee (#909)

Wow, that is much more forgiving than I would ever be capable of. But dealing with family members that have wronged you is so hard, everyone deals differently I guess. And I suppose it partly depends on how likely you think it is to happen again.

Oh god. A friend’s mom had cancer and no money and my best friend gave her a credit card for emergencies. Her mom promptly proceeded to buy a shit ton of crap DVDs and other useless consumer goods. My poor friend – she was flying 2000 miles all the time and had to pay for the funeral and was of course gutted – and then she got the massive credit card bill. I think it was something like $9,000. I can’t even.

@Hiroine Protagonist I think about doing this all the time – giving my mom a credit card – because she’s disabled and emergencies happen and I’m across the country, and I want to feel like I can help. But I am fairly sure she’d do exactly what you just described, and I’ve worked SO HARD for good credit and the freedom that comes with it, so I’ve held off thus far.

isadora (#2,647)

When I was 18 my father died and I received both insurance and a settlement from his death.

My mother’s name was on my account because I was barely 18 (it never occurred to me to take her name off of the account), so I had no recourse when she started siphoning money from it. I didn’t even notice at first and she stole from me on a weekly basis for a long time before I wised up.

She never really apologized and life somehow went on more or less as usual though I never felt close to her again. But she had an endless number of secrets–you’d seriously think I was making them up if I listed them all here.

None of them ripped my world apart in the way that first betrayal did. It’s a symptom of my family’s dysfunction that we didn’t talk about it much after it happened–just as it’s a symptom of this writer’s family.

Oh Lianne, I’m so sorry this happened to you.

My fiance set up a internet account in his name for his sister, who racked up a debt on it. We found out when he went to buy an iPhone and was declined (which I rant about here: http://nzmuse.com/2011/06/15/your-credit-is-like-your-virginity/).

Thankfully, it was only a few hundred dollars. We sucked it up, paid it off, and now have to wait for that to fall off his report (no luck getting it scrubbed, but at least it’s now paid).

“I called in tears because I had to take a $2,000 cash advance on my credit card at a 22 percent interest rate. I cried because I knew it would take me years to pay off that debt.”

I had to laugh at this. When did you graduate, the 80′s? There are millions of people who graduated in the past decade who can’t get their _purchase_ APR below 22%, and they didn’t have a $9000 credit line to console them. They pay their bills on time and have also been building “good” credit since age 18. Student loans ensure that not only will they be in debt for life, they will also have bad credit because of those loans even if they meet all monthly obligations.

iffie (#1,911)

@Sean Feeney@twitter I call such bullshit on this. The student loan crisis is real and I have empathy for people who are struggling but so much of it is personal choice where people want to go to school/their major/etc and no one wants to cop to that part of it.

My mom did this to me in the eighties. I found out when I tried to buy a car after college. When I asked her about it, she acted as if she had no idea what I was talking about.

Needless to say, my dad got some big financial surprises after she passed away a few years ago.

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